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24 July 2012

Unto like Story—Trouble has enticed me—

Unto like Story—Trouble has enticed me—
How Kinsmen fell—
Brothers and Sister—who preferred the Glory—
And their young will
Bent to the Scaffold, or in Dungeons—chanted—
Till God's full time—
When they let go the ignominy—smiling—
And Shame went still—

Unto guessed Crests, my moaning fancy, leads me,
Worn fair
By Heads rejected—in the lower country—
Of honors there—
Such spirit makes her perpetual mention,
That I—grown bold—
Step martial—at my Crucifixion—
As Trumpets—rolled—

Feet, small as mine—have marched in Revolution
Firm to the Drum—
Hands—not so stout—hoisted them—in witness—
When Speech went numb—
Let me not shame their sublime deportments—
Drilled bright—
Beckoning—Etruscan invitation—
Toward Light—
                                                            F300 (1862)  295

Don’t we all have secret fantasies about being a singer, poet, heroic nurse or pilot, or brave explorer? In this (and other) poems Emily Dickinson imagines herself as a noble sufferer. Fox’s Book of Martyrs, the stories of Christian saints killed for their beliefs, was part of the Dickinson library and one that the poet was reputed to have read frequently.
            She begins the poem as if she were about to recount her own tale of woe, something like the stories in the book. But then she sidetracks: “Trouble has enticed me,” she confesses. She is drawn to the tales of suffering and shining faith. In one such tale brothers and sister were executed at the scaffold or sent to die in dungeons. But they “preferred the Glory,” so despite their persecution they chanted their faith and died “smiling,” silencing any “Shame.”

Brave martyrs
            In the second stanza, Dickinson imagines that the martyrs have been granted “Crests”, which may be crowns or other emblems of nobility, despite their having been “rejected” here on earth (“the lower country”). Dickinson knows she is bordering on bathos: “my moaning fancy, leads me,” she says, to imagine their “honors.” But the proud spirit in the stories embolden her until she, too, feels ready to march to the drum all the way to her own “Crucifixion.”
            Dickinson has written of her own crucifixion before, perhaps most notably in “Title divine, is mine” where she is “Empress of Calvary.” In that poem she may have been intimating she had become in some mystic way the bride of Christ. She may well, however, have meant that she has endured much more suffering than most people (and the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive). In another poem, “I should have been too glad, I see,” she scathingly suggest that she be crucified since all joy is denied her.
Brightly painted Etruscan tomb
            But this poem has a prouder tone. The poet reflects that the young kinsmen were no bigger than she and yet they marched bravely and held up their little hands in witness. Taking inspiration from them, the poet vows not to “shame their sublime deportments” that brightly beckon towards a more heavenly light. Dickinson calls this an “Etruscan invitation.” The Etruscan civilization preceded and continued through much of the early Roman era. Beautiful Tuscany was their heartland. Things Swiss and Italian appealed to Dickinson, and this plus the romance of their long-departed culture, beckons to her in time of trouble.

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